How Media-center PCs Work

By: Julia Layton

A Closer Look: Windows XP Media Center Edition

Media Center A/V connections
Media Center A/V connections
Photo courtesy Sony Electronics and Niveus Media

The 2005 Windows XP Media Center Edition is arguably the current state of the art in media-center software. The operating system works hand-in-hand with a computer's hardware to create a true home-theater receiver with the media-storage, navigation, organization and integration functions of a PC. A typical Media Center PC offers:

  • All standard Windows XP programs
  • DVR with program guide
  • Local (antenna) digital and HDTV support (no digital playback for DTV or HDTV coming from cable or satellite -- it's a DRM issue)
  • Progressive-scan DVD playback
  • MP3 access from personal hard drive or online
  • Photo viewing and editing
  • Playing and burning CDs and DVDs (data, audio and video)
  • Movie search functions (look for a particular movie offered by your TV service provider and in numerous online databases)
  • On-demand music and movies
  • Syncing data with a portable media center, smartphone, PDA or MP3 player
  • Remote control, keyboard control and mouse control for all functions

In addition to the Media Center PC, you need a few additional components in order to set up a base-level Media Center:


  • Display (any TV or monitor)
  • TV signal (antenna, cable or satellite)
  • Keyboard and mouse (wireless is best)
  • Speakers (PC, stereo or surround sound)
  • Remote control and receiver (sometimes included)
  • TV tuner (sometimes included)
  • Internet connection (preferably broadband to make the most of your system)
  • A variety of A/V cables

If you can set up an A/V receiver, you can set up a Media Center PC. For a basic setup, you're looking at five primary steps:

  • Connecting your display It doesn't matter what kind of display you have. Everything from a computer monitor to a flat-panel LCD to a CRT to a projection set will do. You just need the right cable to make the connection. Media Center PCs typically come with all of the basic inputs and outputs you'd find on an A/V receiver, including Composite, S-video and Component Video. It'll also have more PC-centric connections like VGA, DVI or HDMI. You just decide which video quality you want (or what your components can support), plug one end of the cable into your TV's input and plug the other end into the PC's output.
  • Connecting your TV signal If you're going to watch TV on your display, you've got to connect your TV signal to the Media Center PC. For an antenna or regular cable signal, this means connecting the cable jack or antenna output directly to the PC input. If you're using a digital-cable or satellite set-top box as your video source, there are two connections to make: One from the wall output to the set-top-box input, and one from the set-top-box output to the PC input. The PC has coaxial inputs to accommodate the connection. For digital cable and satellite, you'll just need to create an additional infrared connection so you can control the set-top box with the Media Center remote. See Media Center and your set-top box for complete details. Keep in mind that a Media Center PC can only support over-the-air digital or high-definition signals -- free signals that you receive via antenna. (Only set-top-box manufacturers are allowed to install the decoders for subscription-based digital and HDTV signals.) So if you receive digital or HD programming through a set-top box, you can still watch it, but you're going to be watching it in standard TV quality.
  • Connecting your speakers If you use a set of PC speakers with your system, the connections are same ones you would make with a standard computer. But you can also connect your current sound system to the Media Center using your current receiver as a pass-through. For a stereo setup, you make a single connection between the PC and the audio receiver (if you have speakers, you have an audio receiver). Using a stereo-mini-to-stereo-RCA cable, you connect the stereo-mini end to the PC's audio-out, and connect the stereo-RCA ends to the CD inputs on the audio receiver. Set the receiver to "CD," and you're ready to go. For a surround-sound setup, the process is only slightly more complicated. Media Center PCs come with different types of sound cards, so you need to make sure you pick a sound card that supports the type of audio setup you plan to use. Pretty much any sound card in a Media Center PC is going to support at least 5.1-channel and probably up to 7.1-channel surround in a variety of formats (DTS, Dolby Digital, etc. -- check out How Surround Sound Works). You can make connections for either digital or multichannel-analog surround. Here's a look at the outputs on a sound-card that supports both:
Photo courtesy Microsoft
  • You simply make the appropriate connections between the outputs on your PC and the inputs on your receiver. For a single digital connection, you'll be using either a coaxial or a Toslink optical cable. For multichannel analog, you'll be using stereo-mini-to-stereo-RCA cables. Remember to set your receiver to whichever input(s) you use.
  • Connecting to the Internet To browse the Web, send e-mail and download your TV program guide, you need a connection to the Internet. And to access online features like streaming media, you're going to want a broadband connection. You connect the Media Center PC to the Internet the same way you would any other computer. If you already have a cable or DSL connection in your home, all you need to do is add the Media Center PC to your home network. For a media-center setup, a wireless connection is ideal. See How WiFi Works and How Home Networking Works to learn about various networking methods.
  • Configuring your system You can configure your entire system from the start menu. Click on "Settings," and you can get to all of the media setup options. The computer walks you through each setting using various setup "wizards" that you're already familiar with if you have a Windows PC. For the basic configuration, you'll just need to tell the Media Center a few things, including: Are you using a set-top box as your video source? Use the TV Signal Setup Wizard to let Media Center PC know what it's connected to -- cable? Digital cable? Satellite? Are you using non-Media Center speakers? Use the Speaker Setup Wizard to configure the Media Center audio decoder for your speaker setup. You'll need to tell it details like whether you're connected to a receiver, whether your setup is stereo, digital surround or multichannel analog, how big your speakers are and whether you're using a subwoofer. Which TV service do you use? The Media Center PC displays a program guide for your TV. It's a free service that updates daily via your Internet connection -- Microsoft downloads program listings from your TV service provider for up to 14 days out. You tell the Setup Wizard your zip code, and it shows you all of the service providers in your area. You just pick yours from the list.

And there you are -- your basic Media Center PC setup. But there are a few extra options and advanced features that you can add to your system once you know what you're doing. In the next section, we'll take a look at a few of the things you can add to your new home-theater setup.